Telling stories to inspire a love for history

Suhaili Osman
Curator, Malay Heritage Centre,
National Heritage Board

Alumna , NUS Arts and Social Sciences

One of Suhaili Osman’s earliest memories of her childhood was listening to her grandmother, Nyai Anik, sing Malay and Javanese lullabies to her and her cousins as they were getting ready to take their afternoon nap. At times, her grandmother would also tell them tales of Malay legends.

“When my sister and I slept over, we would cuddle up with Nyai on her big raised bed and she would tell us the stories of Puteri Gunung Ledang, Hang Tuah and Mahsuri until she dozed off herself,” Suhaili recounted. “She was a great storyteller, and she’d (always) continue where she left off at the next sleepover.”

Suhaili and her late grandmother, Madam Mani Baka, at her Honours graduation

When Suhaili and her cousins were older, Nyai would even regale them with stories of her experiences during World War II.

From hawking kuih (traditional Malay snack or dessert) in the neighborhood to evading Japanese troops by cycling through the rubber plantations, these stories left a deep impression on Suhaili, as they painted vivid pictures of a different time for her.

This budding interest was why, in her teenage years, Suhaili could be found in museums – hours on end – while her peers preferred to hanging out at shopping malls or watching movies.

“Back in the day when there weren't many obvious options of entertainment, other than catching a movie, I used to wander into the National Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum and I’d spend hours in there,” Suhaili said. “There are so many elements to the artefacts in a museum exhibition…there’s the story behind an object, but then you can also step out of the story and appreciate the object for its own beauty.”

Suhaili (far right) and her History Honours classmates on the way to lunch

Today, the 38-year-old still spends most of her time in a museum. Now, though, she does so not as a visitor, but as Curator at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC), which is a Heritage Institution under the National Heritage Board.

And from the way her eyes light up when talking about her work at the MHC – which she joined in 2011 – it is clear that the job suits her to a tee.

“It's been an exciting journey since I joined the museum,” gushed Suhaili. “No day is ever the same for a curator because we’re not only in charge of handling the artefacts, we’re also involved in researching the histories and the stories behind them. Curators here also develop themes and narratives for exhibitions and galleries which help visitors understand how these objects and images serve as entry points to discuss significant episodes in history.

“In my line of work, I get to meet and work, with a diverse range of people – from artists, designers, and academics, to policy makers and members of the community – I’m faced with different situations every day.”

Suhaili on an exchange trip in Canada

But while Suhaili’s love for history makes her a perfect fit to be a museum curator, her journey to get to her current role was far from straightforward.

Having graduated with a Bachelor’s (Honours) degree from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of History in 2002, Suhaili went on to teach History in a local junior college before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as a foreign service officer.

Her research and pedagogical training in the discipline of History held her in good stead as a teacher and in the diplomatic corps. However, she retained a strong desire to pursue a career related to heritage and museums, and so, in 2009, she left the MFA to pursue a full-time Masters with the History Department at NUS under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences' Research Scholarship.

There, Suhaili’s love for history was further reinforced, in no small part due to her professors’ passion and knowledge of their subject areas.

Suhaili and her fellow hall mates at the annual Raffles Hall Dinner and Dance event, in a group photo to remember the evening’s mirth

“I had the opportunity to learn from some great professors who were knowledgeable and always readily available to render help.

“They exposed me to a diverse range of writings and ideas, and I’m very fortunate I can count many of them as professional colleagues and friends today.”

Suhaili had words of praise for the open-minded learning culture at NUS as well.

“As a young person in NUS, having the space to try out new things was important,” Suhaili explained. “It was nice to be able to try something different and not feel as if I would be doomed if it didn't work out.”

“The discussions during tutorials or seminars were also engaging… it wasn't always high-brow and serious. There would be curveballs which fellow course mates would bring up during classes which would then spark lively debates among us.”

Suhaili and her hockey teammates from NUS Raffles Hall. She was also part of the NUS Women’s Hockey Team

A resident of both Eusoff and Raffles Halls in her undergraduate days, Suhaili also found the time to represent NUS in field hockey, participating in local inter-varsity and club tournaments as well as traveling for friendlies against overseas varsity teams within Southeast Asia.

Now, six years since joining the curatorial team, Suhaili remains committed to telling the stories of yesteryear through her work at MHC. After all, it was listening to her grandmother’s tales of the past that had laid the foundation for her love of the subject.

The rest, as they say, is history.